The meaning of “blessed are the poor in spirit” in Matthew 5:3

The Beatitudes in Matthew is well known. It starts with the following,

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matt 5:3) 

This is a little different from what Luke says,

Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God. (Luke 6:20b)

Is “the poor in spirit” in Matthew very different from “the poor” in Luke? One common interpretation of Matthew 5:3 is that it is those who are humble who will be blessed. That is, “the poor in spirit” do not particularly refer to those who are economically poor, but those who humble themselves before God. Some simply say that “the poor in spirit” are those who are poor spiritually. I often wonder whether this view is too simplistic.

As mentioned before, I am enjoying the articles in the second edition of Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (edited by Joel Green, Jeannine Brown and Nicholas Perrin). It is an invaluable resource for all New Testament students. Last week I came across an article written by Seung Ai Yang in this Dictionary. Yang’s interpretation of Matthew 5:3 is similar to mine.

In the Bible “the poor” denotes a broader category than just the financially impoverished. It refers to those who are economically, socially or politically marginalized, for whom God is the only one who can help. What, then, does Matthew mean by adding “in spirit” to “the poor” (Mt 5:3)? The same expression, “the poor in spirit,” is found in a Qumran document, where it is contrasted with a “hardened heart” (1QM XIV, 7). Assuming that Matthew must use the phrase in exactly the same way as in 1QM XIV, 7, some scholars suggest that “the poor in spirit” in Matthew 5:3 refers not to “the economically marginalized” but rather to “the humble in heart” (Talbert, 51; Luz, 233–34; cf. Davies and Allison, 443–44). This interpretation, however, is unconvincing. Even if the phrase “the poor in spirit” has a connotation of humbleness, it does not necessarily exclude the fundamental semantic value about the oppressed and marginalized condition embedded in the term “the poor.” As Betz says, “The characterization of Matt 5:3a as ‘spiritualization’ and as a softening of Jesus’ original radicalism … is misleading” (Betz, 115). The poor in spirit are, then, the people whose spirits or hearts are crushed by their suffering from unjust marginalization. From the socio-historical and literary context of Matthew, it is not difficult to identify who are the poor in spirit. They are the women and men who come to Jesus from all over to be healed and to follow him (Mt 4:18–22). They suffer from all kinds of illnesses because “they bear in their very bodies the harmful effects of the imperial system,” especially the deprivation of human dignity and of material and spiritual resources under the weight of imperial rule, and because “there is no hope for change” (Carter 2000, 132). The poor in spirit, therefore, mourn the social system that runs against God’s will (Mt 5:4). They are meek because they have none in the world to rely on but God (Mt 5:3). They hunger and thirst for righteousness because their daily life is full of injustice (Mt 5:6) (see Betz, 129). It is to these marginalized people, Jesus proclaims, that God’s kingdom belongs (Mt 5:3), and in this kingdom their lowly status will be reversed. They no longer need to mourn, for God comforts them. They are no longer deprived of resources, for God provides them (cf. Ps 37:11) [in Heb. The “meek” … are the poor]. They no longer need to hunger and thirst for the system running in accordance with God’s righteous will, for the life in God’s kingdom is filled with righteousness. (Emphasis added)

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3 thoughts on “The meaning of “blessed are the poor in spirit” in Matthew 5:3

  1. Pingback: Craig Keener on the “the poor in spirit” in Matthew 5:3 | Imagine with Scripture

  2. Thanks for the interesting post, and for the quotation from the new Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. The author appears to presuppose the Q hypothesis in talking about Matthew “adding ‘in Spirit’ to ‘the poor'”. I have argued (Case Against Q, chapter 7) that Matthew’s “poor in spirit” makes good sense as a reading that is revised by Luke; one of the reasons that scholars like the Lucan reading is that they can argue for a trajectory that goes from Jesus’ economic stress on the poor to Matthew’s supposed “spiritualization”, which comports with our own secularizing agenda. The parallel in 1QM 14.7 speaks against this.

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